“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” — Thomas A. Edison
The age of celebrity culture and social media provides emerging generations with the illusion that success is something to be achieved quickly, failing to understand that this lens only frames part of the picture. The general public rarely sees the defining moments of determination during the bushwacked years of blood sweat and tears, yet seeing only the end results without an understanding of the multitudes of rough drafts can lead to frustration when success is not immediately forthcoming. As the author Tal Ben-Shahar points out:
“When we hear about extremely successful people, we mostly hear about their great accomplishments – not about the many mistakes they made and the failures they experienced along the way. In fact, most successful people throughout history are also those who have had the most failures. That is no coincidence. People who achieve great feats, no matter what field, understand that failure is not a stumbling block but a stepping-stone on the road to success. There is no success without risk and failure. We often fail to see this truth because the outcome is more visible than the process—we see the final success and not the many failures that led to it.”
Why This Matters
Humans are biologically wired to be motivated by fear, specifically the fear of losing the ability to pass on our genes, expressed through either liking and seeking that which promotes genetic fitness, or by disliking and avoiding that which reduces genetic fitness. Yet when we allow fears to override potential rewards we become discouraged from committing to and following through with our resolutions.
Consider this observation: the average person gets average results—which are small risks with small wins to create a life in statu quō ante bellum erat—and the exceptional person gets exceptional results—which are big risks with exponentially bigger wins to create a life that is worthy of Instagram. When fears are based on past experiences we erroneously believe that past failures will translate into future failure with no hope for success, yet the opposite is also damaging. It is easy to rest on our past successes so much so that we fail to even try growing to our fullest potential. To break free from the average we are called to boldly step forward despite any fears and despite any past experiences. In other words, to achieve exceptional results we are called to persevere by creating our own exceptions. In this way perseverance can be well understood as courage in action: the courage to face adversity, delays, roadblocks, and hardships of various kinds, and choose to forge ahead instead of taking the easy way out by giving up.
According to Dr. William Marston’s DISC Behavior System, 3% of the population is characterized as dominant, direct, and decisive. Driven by the fear of being taken advantage of, these individuals operate from the belief that the end result is all that matters. This can be a positive personality trait if held within the understanding that successful results take time. As the prominent baseball general manager Frank Lane points out, “If you want to see the sunshine, you have to weather the storm,” and this kind of determination to succeed calls us to employ the Magic Word Perseverance.
But it’s not just sports managers suggesting this. Jean Wiecha, Associate Professor of Exercise and Health Sciences at UMass Boston suggests that the best way to improve long-term success in life is by hardwiring our brains with perseverance. Of course, being a professor of exercise, she believes that a great way to do this is by participating in regular physical activity. The idea is that when we continually add hard-earned wins to our days, we’re reinforcing a mindset of perseverance that translates into all aspects of life for life-long growth. There’s good reason for giving credence to this line of thinking, and it involves our body’s own natural reward chemical dopamine.
Dopamine is an organic chemical that acts as the mind’s natural reward mechanism to fuel the motivation needed to persevere. This chemical is the body’s biological method for reinforcing behavior that promotes genetic fitness by giving us the reward of a sense of satisfaction when we obtain pleasure and avoid pain. However, when we become complacent and don’t engage in proper behaviors, our dopamine levels become depleted which can lead to dissatisfaction and depression. The good news is that dopamine can be controlled and harnessed as a motivating force to help improve our capacity to persevere, and all takes is a slight shift in our beliefs and behaviors.
Believe In Yourself
The popular quote attributed to Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right,” has basis in science. Ted Kaptuchuk, professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, states that when patients believe that a drug will help them the mere belief triggers the body to begin producing dopamine which affects a healing response.
This natural phenomena can have profound consequences for more than just our physical health, but our mental health as well. By choosing to believe in your own abilities with an expectation of success this can literally alter the chemical responses in our brains, and when practiced consistently over time our mind can become conditioned to naturally produce dopamine when we need it to affect positive motivating states conducive to perseverance.
Expectations can have a profound impact on our lives even if it’s literally just all in our head, “there is still a biological mechanism driving these reactions.” But that’s not all; when we believe in ourselves we don’t just produce useful brain chemicals, we also practice a growth mindset that helps to further develop perseverance.
Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, suggests that there are benefits for holding a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset:
When we hold a fixed mindset we rest on our current knowledge, talents, and skills, believing that we will never be able to add to these qualities and therefore exert no effort to even try to improve. However this mindset can be devastating to our will when faced with challenges, obstacles, and failures, as such circumstances can lead us to believe that we we’re simply not good enough, thus reducing dopamine levels and by association impeding our capacity to persevere.
By contrast, with a growth mindset we believe that knowledge, talents, and skills can be developed through continual dedicated practice and hard work. This mindset understands that where we are is only a starting point for our life-long growth and professional development, and it interprets adversity “not as a signal to throw in the towel, but as a natural, healthy part of human growth and achievement.” In short, by simply believing in ourselves by practicing a growth mindset we become imbued with a sense of purpose, poising ourselves to generate the motivation to persevere even when the going gets tough.
Professor Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, suggests a way to practice perseverance through a growth mindset, no matter the specific activity. She sates that perseverance can be cultivated by focusing on key psychological assets, including that of employing intentional practice.
In cultivating practice the professor states that perseverance is a discipline of always trying to improve, however in this endeavor she encourages us to blend moments of stretching our abilities along with moments of “flow” which allows us to express our strengths through effortless performance. This is a key practice that I taught my private students when I worked in a former career as a music teacher. In our lesson we’d spend much time learning new techniques, however I was also always sure to allow the student ample time to demonstrate the strengths of what they had already learned as a way to both build and reinforce confidence. This “flow” time was crucial especially after spending much time learning a particularly difficult passage, for example. Fumbling and stumbling is no way to build confidence, and especially for young students it can cause them to want to quit mighty quick! But by immediately following up that time with selections that they’ve already mastered, it provides encouragement to persevere.
Accomplish Something Every Day
If we don’t accomplish something everyday dopamine levels diminish, which makes it easy to become frustrated and give up. But we are empowered to ramp up our levels of dopamine by ensuring that we do accomplish something every day. It doesn’t have to be something big every day; in fact, big accomplishments are usually the result of little tasks completed on a regular basis. So breaking down large tasks into smaller manageable tasks, and ensuring that we compete and acknowledge those wins, will trigger our brains to reward us with the pleasure inducing chemical that’s key to fueling perseverance.
To help with this consider making a checklist everyday of all the things you’d like to accomplish. Having this checklist not only helps us to organize our thoughts, but it also provides an opportunity to releases dopamine every time we cross something off the list once accomplished. What’s more, at the end of the week we’ll have seven lists with a multitude of tangible accomplishments to back at, providing a further boost of perseverance fuel!
Celebrate Your Wins
In today’s hustle and bustle it's so easy to become apathetic, but when we don’t take time to celebrate our achievements—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant—dopamine levels dry up preventing perseverance from being reinforced. By instead holding an internal locus of control by being our own cheerleaders we’ll instead be in control of our natural reward of dopamine. So when you experience success, get in the habit of sincerely experiencing it. I suggest creating your own happy dance or touchdown celebration. Over time you’ll learn to associate perseverance as a good feeling regardless of any associated difficulties.
Nelson Mandela once put it well when he said “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” When we look for the bigger perspective, when we know our purpose, when we prepare well, and when we are fully present in all that we do, we align yourself to not just bounce back from any potential setbacks but, even better, to bounce forward to truly be better today than we were yesterday. Now that’s a resolution worth sticking to!
1. Sacrifice The Negotiables
There is no such thing as success without sacrifice. Sacrifices can be made with our time, sharing our unique talents, and giving whatever resources we can spare, however sometimes sacrifices involve giving up grief, anger, hopelessness, and a longing for what could have been and for what should have been. Decide what’s negotiable and give it up.
2. Release Time Expectations
We tend to overestimate what we can do in a year while underestimating what we can do in a decade. When we release expectation on an unrealistic timeframe and instead focus on doing the right things every day—no matter how seemingly small—we align ourselves to persevering to achieve future success as part of a commitment to the long game.
3. Practice Persistence
Consider this statement from the journalist and photographer Jacob Riis:
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
4. Surround Yourself With Encouraging Reminders
We tend to become what we focus our attention on. Surrounding ourselves with objects, with tasks, with a wardrobe, in environments, and with associates that remind us always of why we are doing what we are doing, will all provide encouragement to persevere. What will be your reminders?
Jonas Cain is an educator, facilitator, and coach, working to engage, empower, and encourage leaders and the people they serve to experience joy.